10 Essential One-Film Wonders

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Anthology Film Archives kicked off a new series this week about the underappreciated and forgotten “one-film wonders” — those movies made by filmmakers who “[established] a fully formed cinematic vision with their first full-length credit, only to never make another feature.”

The surreal Return to Oz, Timothy Carey’s brilliant and lunatic debut World’s Greatest Sinner, and The Night of the Hunter, with its striking chiaroscuro palette, are just a few of the great works featured in the series. We’re adding a few more one-film wonders to the list that strike our fancy for their experimental style and provocative themes.

Tender Dracula, or Confessions of a Blood Drinker

Two writers and their girlfriends venture to the castle of a horror actor known for his vampiric roles to discuss his career plans. The closer they get to the thespian, the harder it becomes for them to determine if he’s an actor or a real vampire. The in-joke, of course, is that the vamp in question is played by Hammer Films’ star Peter Cushing, who is known for his longtime role as vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing. Scenery chewing aside, the film contains strange sequences that make Tender Dracula an oddity worth seeking. Zev Toledano writes:

There’s a silly song sung by Miou-Miou, a hallucinative dream-sequence involving a girl cut in half with her lower half still walking around the grounds, a strange butler, who used to be vampire’s wife’s husband, who seems handy with an axe, a sadistic vampire wife, shoehorned scenes involving gypsies and the vampire’s gravedigger father, an absurd orgy, staged suicides with fake blood in an attempt to inspire the vampire.

The House Is Black

With an unflinching eye, director Forough Farrokhzad takes us inside the miserable life of a leper colony in the essential Iranian documentary The House Is Black. The film is narrated with verses from the Koran and Farrokhzad’s own poetry. “It’s a blackjack of a movie, soberly documenting the village of lost ones… freely orchestrating scenes and simply capturing others… this in the same year as Vivre sa vie and La Jetée,” wrote Michael Atkinson for the Village Voice.

Ballet mécanique

Ballet mécanique is what you get when avant-garde artists Fernand Léger and Man Ray get together and make a movie with help from Ezra Pound, composer George Antheil, and filmmaker Dudley Murphy. One of the early experimental masterworks, the film merges a series of kaleidoscopic images and sounds, with Cubist-style flourishes and the absurdity of Dada.

Manos: The Hands of Fate

Harold P. Warren’s one-man trash classic Manos: The Hands of Fate is the work of an insurance salesman who accepted a bet and made cult cinema history. Warren shot the film, if you can call it that, with a handheld camera and no audio. The dubbing is atrocious, the editing a disaster, but the story about a vacationing family who stumble upon a Satanic cult makes Manos a mind-bender. “Manos amounts to the man’s cinematically transfigured subconscious. What, then, to make of the 10-minute scene where six women, wearing bras, girdles and what appears to be mosquito-netting, wrestle for rights to the ‘Master?’” wrote Dan Neil for the LA Times.

High Velocity

“Hard-nosed Vietnam vets are hired to spring an international executive who’s been kidnapped. Standard action fare, unworthy of a good cast,” wrote Leonard Maltin of this 1976 actioner. He’s referring to the unusual trio of Cassavetes alum Ben Gazzara, Bond girl Britt Ekland, and Academy Award-nominated Sounder star Paul Winfield, who make High Velocity worth checking out, regardless.

Der Verlorene

Best known for his creeptastic role as a serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M, Peter Lorre directed his own noir-styled film, also co-written by the actor. He traveled back to Germany to make the movie based on a true story about a scientist haunted by his past. Dr. Rothe (played by Lorre) performed research for the Nazis during the war. He murders his fiancée after learning she was a spy selling his secrets. “The film feels permeated by the Nazi psychosis,” wrote Robert Keser for Senses of Cinema. “The film’s indirection challenges the viewer as the oblique narrative bends away from orderly progression, unfolding in gripping flashbacks yet proceeding with an unfamiliar internal rhythm, threatening now and again to turn into a police procedural or an espionage thriller.”

Ved vejen

Ingmar Bergman muse Max von Sydow took a turn behind the camera for a Danish-Swedish love triangle tale set in a small village. The movie was met with a modest amount of success, having screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the ’88 Cannes Film Festival. An adaptation of Herman Bang’s novella, authors Per Olov Qvist and Peter von Bagh wrote of the film: “While not a masterpiece, it is an unpretentious, entertaining, moving, and honestly illustrated classic.”

The Telephone Book

Nelson Lyon wrote and directed the X-rated Telephone Book in 1971, initially conceived as a parody of the pornography trade. An introverted young woman receives pervy phone calls from an anonymous man and decides to pursue an encounter. The film is an oddball combination of surreal comedy, animation, and sexploitation. Slant called it “a brilliant and lamentably neglected gem of early-’70s underground filmmaking.” Look for a cameo from Warhol Superstar Ultra Violet. (Visit our interview with distribution company and film archive Vinegar Syndrome, the company responsible for restoring The Telephone Book for re-release.)

Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo adapted his award-winning 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun for the big screen in 1971 (casting Donald Sutherland as Christ for a drug-fueled dream sequence). The film shifts between color and black and white for an emotional story that opens during World War I. “It came out of the Cannes Film Festival with three awards and a slightly pious aroma, as if it had been made for joyless Student Peace Union types of thirty-five years ago,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1971 review. “But it isn’t like that at all. Trumbo has taken the most difficult sort of material — the story of a soldier who lost his arms, his legs, and most of his face in a World War I shell burst — and handled it, strange to say, in a way that’s not so much anti-war as pro-life. Perhaps that’s why I admire it.”

Butley

Esteemed playwright Harold Pinter directed the stage work of fellow writer Simon Gray — his 1971 play, Butley. Alan Bates, Jessica Tandy, Richard O’Callaghan, Susan Engel, and Michael Byrne star in the story of a troubled T. S. Eliot scholar that takes place in a single location. Said Pinter of the movie:

Simon Gray asked me to direct Butley in 1970. I found its savage, lacerating wit hard to beat and accepted the invitation. . . . The extraordinary thing about Butley, it still seems to me, is that the play gives us a character who hurls himself towards the destruction while living, in the fever of his intellectual hell, with a vitality and brilliance known to few of us. He courts death by remaining ruthlessly – even dementedly – alive. It’s a remarkable creation and Alan Bates as Butley gave the performance of a lifetime.